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1-Page Summary of Don’t Think of An Elephant
George Lakoff is a cognitive scientist who has been trying to figure out how conservatives brainwash people into believing their ideology. He believes that there are certain techniques used by conservatives which can be countered with liberal tactics, but he doesn’t think it’s wrong to use those same tactics. His main concern is that liberals need to catch up and learn the skills of effective communication in order to counter conservative arguments.
Lakoff reduces framing to its basics. He cites former president Richard Nixon, who famously said: “I am not a crook.” This illustrates one of Lakoff’s bedrock principles: never, ever use the language of your opponents. Their language reflects their frame. Use it and you’ve gutted your argument before you begin.
Dr. Lakoff provides these insights:
1. The person who controls the frame controls the debate.
Successful politicians know how to frame issues in order to win elections. The way you frame an issue determines the outcome of the election. In his book, Lakoff says that if you control the framing, then you are in control. Bush’s tax cuts were framed as “tax relief” and Democrats ended up supporting them because it was framed as something desirable (i.e., relief).
2. Framing language exploits brain chemistry.
Framing does not only happen during election season. Lakoff laments that conservatives have been framing issues for years, and they’ve done so very effectively. Their efforts reveal a profound understanding of the neuroscience behind political thought. Conservative language strengthens the neural pathways for conservative thinking, while liberal language strengthens progressive pathways in the brain. The more you experience one pathway, the stronger it becomes and atrophies simultaneously with its opposing counterpart.
As the conservative pathway becomes stronger, people tend to agree with a conservative view. Reporters repeat whichever language is in vogue, which reinforces that point of view in the audience’s brain. If someone tells you not to think about an elephant, your mind automatically conjures up an elephant because negative framing almost always causes the train of thought it tries to prevent.
Recently, Republicans have been better at framing issues than Democrats. For example, the GOP won the framing battle on family values and taxes. President Barack Obama used superior framing to win the 2008 election; however, he lost this advantage in 2012 when Republicans gained an edge by using a different frame for social policy that led to the rise of the Tea Party movement.
3. The “strict father” school of thought shapes modern conservative values.
In this view, if you don’t have a moral code and an authoritative parent who punishes bad behavior, then you will become a criminal. The government should not interfere with the parent-child relationship because it’s essential to instill discipline in children so they can be successful later in life. If people are on welfare or other social programs, it’s because they weren’t disciplined enough as children. In contrast, progressives believe that everyone is born good and becomes even better when nurtured by their parents.
4. The right succeeded at framing issues and the left mostly failed.
Some progressives may think conservatives are stupid, but Lakoff believes they’re just savvy. They know how to appeal to their constituents by using messages that resonate with them. Truth and accuracy aren’t enough for a campaign; you need something more than that if you want to win. Conservatives don’t always tell the truth, but what one side thinks is a lie isn’t necessarily an intentional untruth from the other side. Your view of truth depends on your worldview, so it’s important to understand both sides before making judgments about someone else’s perspective.